I often end up at the grocery store without my list. Fortunately, this tends to happen more when I’m dashing in to pick up a few things than when I have a major shopping to do.

The techniques I use to remember what was on my list remind me of how I help readers remember what I’ve written.

There’s not much point in writing if your readers are going to soon forget. Because readers rarely react immediately to what they’ve read, you have to help them deposit your information currency and later withdraw it from their memory bank.

Five basic memory glues can help: 1. repetition 2. clarity, relevance and value 3. focus 4. framework and 5. shared experience.

Repetition

The classic memory technique is repetition. With forgotten grocery lists. I automatically ask myself whether we need milk and bread, because they are almost always on the list. While effective, too much repetition can be annoying, as we know from all too many TV commercials and motivational speakers.

So it’s wise to use repetition sparingly and appropriately. Repetition works well when you summarize your introduction or conclusion. But if you want to strengthen memorability, without boring your readers, you need to apply other memory glues.

Clarity, relevance and value

Your readers’ brains prioritize what they’re going to hold as a deposit based on its relevance and value. That’s why you need to use terminology your readers understand and address their needs and values.If I had written on my grocery list “a nut of the Juglandaceae family,” I would not have remembered the walnuts. Similarly, if I had written “a nut from the tree valued for making veneers,” I would have missed them too, because the definition, though easier, is relevant to furniture, not food, my task at hand.

Fortunately, the list still sitting on my kitchen table said “walnuts” and my kids and I had just been talking about how nutritious they are, which we value.

Even more importantly, as I walked down the grocery aisle, my achy knee reminded me that I had read that walnuts might calm the inflammation. Responding to physical or emotional pain has probably the strongest grip on memory.

Focused

Without a list, I can easily remember three to five items at the grocery store. But the longer the forgotten list, the more likely I am to forget. Readers also have difficulty remembering too much information. So keep it short and focused. No clutter.

Because most of us can remember no more than five items from the forgotten grocery list, five is probably as many points you want your readers to remember. Fewer is better.

Frameworks

Numbers help too. If I had known there were five items on the forgotten list, I would have kept thinking until five items were in my shopping cart. This may explain why I sometimes end up with sodium-reduced hoisin sauce or blueberry cheesecake. Probably not on my list, but they created the numerical symmetry I required before hitting the checkout.

With readers, you can also use other frames of reference such as geographic regions, related points, chronological order or problem-solution. The point is to help your readers organize information in their brains to help them understand and remember.

When I see the apples I remember they're on my list.

Visuals

Visual cues also work well in grocery stores and writing. When I see the mouth-watering display of apples, I remember they were on my list. Note that I did not have to draw pictures of apples on the actual list. While visuals can help us make those memory deposits, they work even better at giving us cues to withdraw.

In addition to dramatic graphics that tie into what you’re writing, subtle visuals, such as bolded phrases or subheads, work too. They encourage your readers to think it’s important and tuck it away in their memory.

Shared experiences

The grocery list analogy demonstrates another memory technique, using an experience that pretty much everybody shares to link the known, remembering what was on your grocery list, to the unknown, more ways to help readers remember what you write.

The next time you go to write something that you want people to remember, you probably won’t have this post in front of you. Do tell me if you decide to print and display it beside your desk. I’ll be flattered.

But you should be able to remember some or all of my five tips by thinking back to how you remember items at the grocery store when you forget your list.

Super glue

Of course, there are many stronger memory glues, notably catchy slogans. Rhymes strengthen the memory grip by many times. Who can forget: In August 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue? And what about the guitar riff you can’t get out of your head?

These advanced super glues will have to wait for future posts. I’ve already given you more than enough basic memory glues to remember. So here’s your review: 1. repetition 2. clarity, relevance and value 3. focused 4. visuals and 5. shared experiences.

Almost like grocery shopping without a list, right?

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What was I supposed to get? Write to help readers remember
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